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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Out of the bubble trouble

The NBA has been hit hard by COVID-19 so far in this young season, leaving many questions about what is left to do

Roughly a quarter of the way through the first National Basketball Association (NBA) season outside of the Orlando bubble, the league has seen its fair share of frustrating moments. With the number of COVID-19 cases rising rapidly across the country, the league has been forced to postpone many games and modify their protocols.

When the NBA released their COVID-19 protocols before the season began on Dec. 22, 2020, the league was determined to follow through with the season no matter what happened. Following the success of the Orlando bubble, the league hoped to accomplish the same level of containment. Seeing how the National Football League (NFL) handled its number of COVID-19 cases, the NBA hoped to replicate that “bend don’t break” mindset when it came to the pandemic. But, it seemed like right off the bat, they had to face reality.

The Dec. 23, 2020 matchup between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder in the Houston Toyota Center was the first game of the season to be postponed, due to three positive or inconclusive tests. The league’s contact tracing led them back to four other players with exposure, for a total of seven possible COVID-19 cases. Because NBA rules state that a team must have at least eight healthy players, the Rockets were unable to reach that criteria. Despite the early trip up, the league managed to go almost three weeks without having to postpone any more games, until the string of positive tests hit. 

Having previously been able to play games without many of its players, the NBA hit a wall, postponing six games over a span of four days—three of those on a single day. It began a long stretch of over two weeks with 21 postponed games in total. The Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards were forced to miss a total of six games each, messing with the rhythm and flow of their season. In the Wizards’ return to the floor on Jan. 24, they had to play with only an eight man rotation.

“It’s not normal,” said Wizards star guard Bradley Beal. “I just got done getting tested after the game, so it’s not normal. We are doing a lot of things on the fly. It’s just the next-man-up mentality.”

Throughout the uncertain time, the NBA adjusted their COVID-19 protocols in an effort to limit the damage caused. Masks now have to be worn by anyone who isn’t playing, including the players who are on the bench. Players are no longer allowed to leave their hotel rooms on the road, nor are they allowed to go out back at home. Some NBA veterans expressed concerns that these rules were too restrictive.

“I’m a grown man,” said Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill. “I’m gonna do what I want to do. If I want to go see my family, I’m going to go see my family. They can’t tell me I have to stay in a room 24/7. If it’s that serious, then maybe we shouldn’t be playing.”

This is understandable from Hill’s point of view. Having such drastic changes to the normal NBA life takes an adjustment period, but it cannot be ignored that the safety of the players and staff is the priority of the league. However, Hill raises a concern about the tension between the pandemic’s severity and the league’s intensity in moving forward with the season. 

In addition to the aforementioned modifications, the NBA also banned the postgame handshakes between opposing players. A common ritual after pre-pandemic games, opponents would meet at center court and talk for a little bit and oftentimes exchange jerseys. But, the NBA now has security guards on the floor that prevent this from happening. An example is the now viral moment after the game between the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets. Heat forward Bam Adebayo met up with Nets’ Kyrie Irving and tried to exchange jerseys with him. The NBA security guard broke up the interaction.

“I just want to follow NBA protocols,” Irving said, laughing postgame. “I have the jersey, by the way.” 

The amount of postponements so far is concerning for everyone in the league. Having some teams hit hard by COVID-19 and others experiencing minimal impact, the NBA is reaching a potentially troubling situation when it comes to the balance of power. With some teams missing players, it is hard to build a rhythm and reach their true potential. Because of this, it is important that the NBA enacts all protocols they possibly can to avoid reaching a situation where some teams have an unfair advantage during the season. 

“It’s what’s necessary, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of this COVID thing,” said Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “If it means I have to wear a mask on the bench the whole time, it is what it is and I’m gonna do it. I want to get back to normal living, and whatever it takes to get back, I’m going to do it.”

It is still early in the season, and the league hopes they can reach some sort of stability as the first half of the schedule draws to a close. How the NBA maneuvers and reschedules the games remains to be seen, but it is going to take some creativity all-around. A potential vaccine is a factor that has begun to be taken into account, and the possibility of it being administered before the playoffs lies in the hands of those in charge of the vaccine rollout. Whatever the case may be, the NBA has struggled massively so far and the inability to avoid positive tests may eventually lead to a break the league does not want to take.

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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